Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Dachau: A matter of perspective

Two years ago, I had the amazing opportunity to visit the beaches of Normandy.

It was an amazing experience, with an overwhelming sense of history. To realize that so many, many people gave their lives to punch a hole in the Nazi defenses was sobering. Without that offensive, who knows what the world would be like now? As a friend of mine said, we might all be speaking German.

But I've got to say, I did not fully sense the significance until this last Saturday. Oh yeah, I knew how important it was. I knew that victory in World War II ended the monstrous reign of Adolf Hitler. But I didn't really feel it. Not until Saturday.

Why? Well, this last Saturday I was in Munich, Germany at the end of a business trip. And being so near Dachau, we decided to visit the former concentration camp.

I cannot even put into words what I saw over a period of about three hours. We walked the grounds where tens of thousands were mistreated in unimaginable ways. They lived without adequate sleeping facilities, adequate food, or adequate human interaction. When they died from these intolerable conditions, they were cremated en masse without a shred of dignity. Toward the end of the war, many of them were led into gas chambers to be executed.

Note: I took a lot of pictures because I never want to forget what I saw. I considered putting them here, but I've decided not to (with one exception below) for two reasons: First, I don't think the pictures do justice to the true horror that was Dachau, and second, I couldn't get past the fear that posting the pictures would trivialize and/or sensationalize the pain of those who died there. I want to do the memory more honor than that.

Here is the thought that has stuck with me since the visit: I feel like I understand what I saw at Normandy so much more. Why did those men give their lives? For their country? Yes, of course. But in this case it was so much more than that. They died so that the atrocities at Dachau and other such camps would end. They died to free the captives, captives who suffered as much or more as any group of people in history. As I walked, sat, and prayed on the grounds of Dachau, my mind kept going back to Normandy. and to those great young men who bravely advanced so that at some current and all future victims of the Third Reich could be saved.

Rows of crosses at Normandy...

...led to the destruction of rows of barracks at Dachau:

And that's a good, good thing.

As I reflect on these two experiences, I can't help but think about what we are celebrating this week, Holy Week. Friday we will meditate on the cross of Jesus, and how he paid the price for our sin. He set us free and made a relationship with God possible. But like the sacrifice at Normandy, we can't fully grasp the meaning without understanding what he was rescuing us from. We were totally lost, a victim of all the evil the world can pile on us. We may not have realized it, but our situation was desperate. If we don't' see that, we can't see how great the death and resurrection of Jesus. So my prayer for myself is that I will see myself as I really am, so that I can fully appreciate what Christ did for me.

Just as I now more fully appreciate what the heroes of Normandy did. Context is everything, isn't it?

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